SAS: What is Los Topos and what work do you do with them?
AW: “Topos" means “moles” in Spanish, and we do what moles do — we dig…but for people. I’ve been deployed to Haiti, the tsunami in Japan, the earthquake and mudslides in Nepal, and the landslide in Washington state. Los Topos has been deployed as a search and rescue team to every major earthquake since 1985. I’ve been involved with them since 2010.
SAS: What motivates you to volunteer with Los Topos?
AW: I guess it’s my way of giving back a little. There is a brotherhood there. The search and rescue world is a tight-knit family where you put your lives in other people’s hands and you try to bring lives back to people who feel like they’ve lost a lot. Somebody’s got to do it. It’s about allowing people to either have closure after a traumatic event or to watch the joy on a parent’s face when you give them back their child when it’s been a successful rescue. We’ve unfortunately had to hand back a lot of bodies to parents, loved ones, wives, brothers, and sisters, but it lets them close a chapter to know that their loved ones have been recovered.
SAS: What are some of the unexpected challenges you face when you volunteer in these disaster areas?
AW: There is a cultural barrier in a lot of places. For instance, in Nepal, many of the different religious sects wanted the bodies to remain where they were and never be recovered. But our job helps take the headcount and the only way that’s going to happen is to recover people. You have to tread lightly and be mindful of the culture in many places. I also bring a portable drinking water system with us. It makes water anywhere on Earth. I’ve brought that system to our trainings in Mexico and Chile because it essentially turns raw sewage into drinking water. When we are in remote places, finding clean water is critical. In some places, because of the culture, they don’t understand what the system does or why we need it. In Haiti, even though the water is contaminated and there are cholera outbreaks, the villagers didn’t want to drink the water we made with our system. They were drinking water out of a stream full of waste and filth, but they didn’t understand. We finally got the village where we were to use the clean water system and it was a game changer.
SAS: How did your time at St. Andrew’s impact your commitment to community service?
AW: St. Andrew’s instills the qualities in individuals that make it possible to leave and go into life feeling that service is important. I think St. Andrew’s instills the morals. You don’t leave St. Andrew’s without wanting to go into the world and help people. I don’t think I was particularly service oriented before St. Andrew’s. I remember at school that we would pick up garbage around town and help out the elders in the community. My experiences are a product of being at the right place at the right time; one of those right places was St. Andrew’s.
SAS: How did you discover your love of wooden boats and woodworking?
AW: That all started at St. Andrew’s in the wood shop. George Bandel, my teacher, was a patient man and he shaped a lot of us, including me, in many ways because he did things with us that other kids do with their parents. He was instrumental for me from the beginning. His wood shop was a great experience. It is why I am doing what I’m doing today.
SAS: What are some of your favorite memories from St. Andrew’s?
AW: Florence Davis was my special education resource teacher and she helped shaped me. I was one of the difficult ones, but she and my other teachers stood by me no matter what. I still have one of the greatest gifts that I got from St. Andrew’s, and that is my friends. They are lifelong friends. They are closer to me than some of my family. They are a different type of blood that can never be replaced. The fact that I have these lifelong friends from St. Andrew’s, it has changed my life and that’s something I’ll carry with me always. We were given a gift to have walked away with friends like that. St. Andrew’s is always there.
SAS: You’ve given back to St. Andrew’s by donating some of your beautiful furniture and other handcrafted pieces. Why do you feel compelled to give to St. Andrew’s?
AW: I think it’s very important to give back. I was fortunate to have a system of education in a private school that a lot of people don’t get. As an older person now, I support learning for youngsters and St. Andrew’s is a place that teaches people life skills so they can make a life for themselves. I don’t have a lot of money, but I can create something, so I’m happy to give in that way.